Akasa Air, funded by late investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, has sent legal notices to 19 pilots who have joined Air India Express before they completed a notice period of six months, the executives said.
Tata Sons-owned Air India Express has refuted the charges, saying pilots who have been hired from Akasa Air had paid the required bond amount of up to Rs 50 lakh, which compensated for their cost of training.
Mediation efforts by sector regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) have not helped and both Akasa and Air India Express are preparing to move courts, the executives said. While Akasa Air is represented by Nora Chambers, Air India Express has appointed Indus Law to represent the pilots.
Since May, 19 pilots of Akasa Air have quit the airline to join Air India Express and some of them have left with less than a week’s notice, forcing the carrier to cancel and reschedule flights. The airline has been forced to increase salaries twice in the last two months in order to retain pilots.
People in the know said last month, senior executives of Akasa Air including chief executive Vinay Dube approached the DGCA saying that hiring of their pilots by Air India Express was in violation of the aviation regulator’s law and was hurting their operations.
A 2017 rule of the regulator makes it mandatory for commanders to serve a notice period of one year and first officers a notice period of six months before leaving an airline.
The DGCA refused to intervene as the rule has been challenged by multiple pilots’ unions and the issue is currently pending in the Delhi High Court. “The parties need to sort it out among themselves as we can’t intervene until the court decides on the validity of the rule,” said a senior DGCA official.
A senior Air India Express executive said hiring of the pilots is according to the contracts as they have paid the required bond amount for resigning before notice period. Less than 10% of the airline’s fresh hires are from Akasa, while bulk of the appointments were through internal upgrades & transfers and hiring of fresh licence holders and former military pilots, the executive said.
“Choice of multiple bases, a flexible work pattern and an opportunity to operate widebody aircraft and legacy of the Tata Group are attracting pilots to work for the airline,” said a spokesperson for the Tata-owned airline.
Akasa Air didn’t respond to queries till press time Thursday.
Pilots who have received legal notice from Akasa Air said the contract doesn’t stand as the airline had altered payment structures. In June, the airline had reduced the payment to Rs 7,500 from Rs 10,000 for every hour flown by a pilot beyond the monthly quota of 40 hours.
Both Akasa Air and Air India Express have plans for rapid expansion and together will add around 70 new aircraft by the end of 2024. Both airlines operate the Boeing 737 Max aircraft which makes it easier to hire from each other due similar training and procedure.
Akasa has added 20 aircraft in less than one year since it started business last August. Air India Express, fuelled by investment from the Tatas, has chalked out an aggressive expansion plan of deploying 50 Boeing 737 Max by the end of 2024. Out of those, 25 planes will be added by June.
The legal fight points to the struggle of Indian airlines to find senior captains and trainers after record aircraft orders.
Airlines are poised for their busiest year of pilot hiring in more than three years as they try to restock a workforce reduced during the pandemic and strained by a quick rebound in travel.